‘Your Friendships Change Forever When You Get Cancer’

A diagnosis alters your life in so many ways - not least your friendships, says Deborah James

'Last year I was told I was dying, now I've been told I"m cancer free'

by Deborah James |
Published on

There are a few moments in your life when you truly make friends. Proper friends. The kind who wipe your tears when that bad boy really turns out bad, or hold your hair back over a bowl, rub your back and tell you everything will be fine.

Or the kind who come to chemotherapy with you, cry and laugh when you don’t know if you’ll be alive next year and joke about what they might wear to your funeral if you don’t make it through.

When I look at my wonderfully eclectic mix of friends, it’s predictably the milestones – school, college, university, work, babies, cancer – that acted as a catalyst for forming my incredible support network. A network that since my diagnosis 22 months ago – with stage 4 bowel cancer – I have leaned on heavily, just to function.

I will never forget one of my friends bluntly telling me to get up, get in the shower and get dressed as I lay in bed with deep depression, unable to put one foot in front of the other after hearing the words, ‘You have cancer.’ But while I wouldn’t be standing, let alone still smiling, today without my friends, I have to be honest and admit that since cancer entered my life, every one of my relationships has changed, some for the better, others less so.

I’ve formed a whole host of new friendships, mainly through people I first met online, and then in real life. It’s similar to the way I remember meeting ‘baby buddies’ when I had my children – thrown together haphazardly over poo chat. Yes, now I have my cancer club and yes, we also do poo chat. It’s the friendship club you never want to be part of, but while you’re in the trenches, it’s better to have someone there with you.

The bonds are incredible, almost unrivalled by comparison – it’s life or death chat, it’s a cheer squad. You discuss every side effect in minuscule detail, encourage each other to traipse to yet more treatment, pick each other up when bad news hits, and raise a glass to clear scans.

But the most heartbreaking moment is when one of the club members dies – like my friend and You, Me And The Big C podcast host and BBC news presenter Rachael Bland, who died last month from breast cancer. Heartbroken doesn’t cut it – it’s too close. I mourn for the loss of yet another (and yes, I do mean yet another) friend, and ask myself if it’s right, that as a 36-year-old, I have gone to more funerals than weddings or christenings.

But as sad as these occasions are, moving in these ‘dark’ circles is, in fact, far from dark. As Rach said, ‘Even in death there is laughter to be found.’ Only she, out of all of my friends, could make me laugh when, on the same day I was told my cancer had returned, she was told she had months left to live.

She sent me animated grim reapers and asked if we should push for two-for- one on our funerals, musing maybe we’d get free flowers if we Instagrammed them. None of my non-cancer friends get this dark humour – thankfully. They don’t really know what it’s like to be staring death straight down the barrel, but I’m grateful for that. Yes, they struggle to come to terms with the idea that their friend is ill, but most of them go out of their way to help.

But I recognise that my diagnosis isn’t easy for everyone; I’ve learned that we can’t expect all friends to be ‘OK’ and able to handle every situation thrown at them. I have the friend who I need to console about my cancer – I end up rubbing her on the back, telling her it will be OK. I have friends who just want to keep me alive – they send me daily ‘Have you tried this?’ emails in a desperate bid to fix me.

I have the friend of few words who doesn’t know what to say, but is as practical as the best of them, landing another load of food at my door. Then I have the friend so caught up in her own life and messy dating disasters that I get the occasional ‘How’s that cancer malarkey going?’ message amid streams of party invites, assuming cancer won’t stop me attending. ‘No excuses!’ she texts. I love this – she remembers me for me.

I have friends I can just cry with, ones I can escape cancer and have party nights with, ones who need every detail of ‘what’s happening next’ and others who don’t. Some people have surprised me – like the person I hardly knew, who has written cards filled with encouragement every week for two years. Some have distanced themselves – my diagnosis is too close, it reminds them of painful experiences of losing relatives.

It leaves me thinking, why is it so hard to pick up the phone? But then I wonder if I would if the roles were reversed. Sometimes just sending a text saying nothing other than ‘I’m thinking of you’ is all we need to know that you care.

Because, despite the cancer roller coaster I find myself on, I’m grateful most of my friends are on the train. But knowing and recognising they have their seat – and role – is as important as knowing they’re there. I’ve learned my celebrations are theirs too, my lows are theirs. They experience my emotions – they want my cancer to ‘do one’ just as much as I do – and it breaks their hearts, too.

‘F*** You Cancer’ by Deborah James is out now

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